The Bloody Angle
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
On May eighth, the two antagonists entrenched themselves, made their dispositions and placed their batteries. On May ninth, there was much skirmishing, heavy enough at times to be called an engagement. On this day, on the blue side, there was killed General Sedgwick. From the beginning of the campaign, Jeb Stuart had most seriously interfered with the blue host. On the eighth, Grant ordered Sheridan to strike out independently for Richmond and so draw Stuart away from the field of Spottsylvania. At sunrise on the ninth, Sheridan and ten thousand horsemen took the Telegraph Road that stretched from Fredericksburg to Richmond. At sundown they came to Beaver Dam Station and the Virginia Central Railroad. Here they captured a trainload of wounded and prisoners on the way from Spottsylvania to Richmond. Here they released three hundred and seventy Federal captives, and here they set fire to all trains and buildings and tore up the rail-road track and made birds' nests of the telegraph wires. And here they heard Stuart on their heels. On the tenth, they crossed the South Anna at Ground Squirrel Bridge, not without skirmishing. At night Stuart's shells rained into their camps. On the eleventh, one blue brigade had an encounter with Munford at Ashland while the main force swept on to Glen Allen. Here they met Stuart's strong skirmish line, and, driving it in at last, came to Yellow Tavern, six miles from Richmond.
Back in Spottsylvania, all day the tenth of May there was fighting, fighting by the river Po, between Heth's division and troops of Hancock, artillery work and skirmishing along all lines; in the after-noon a great blue assault, desperately repelled. The Federal loss this day was four thousand, the Confederate, two thousand.
The eleventh saw a lull, a still and oppressive pause in things. The blue made a reconnoissance, much interfered with by grey sharpshooters, but a reconnoissance big with results. What had been cloudy knowledge became clear; there sprang into intense light a thing that might be done. That night the Federal Second and Ninth Corps slept on their arms in a sheltering wood a thousand yards and more from the salient that marked the grey centre, from the narrow part of the V, held by Edward Johnson's division of Ewell's corps.
All day the eleventh the grey had strengthened breastworks and made inner lines. There was a fine, slow rain, and the mist of it, added to the smoke from the burning forest and the clouds from the cannon mouth, made a dull, obscuring atmosphere. In the after-noon came with positiveness the statement of a reconnoitring party. A blue column, in motion southward, had been observed to cross the Po. At the same time arrived a message from Early. "Certainly some movement of the enemy to the left." Now another flank movement of Grant's, another attempt to "swing past," another effort to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond was so probable, so entirely on the cards, that Lee accepted the report as correct and prepared to act accordingly. He prepared to move during the night that supple, mobile army of his, and in speed and silence again to lay it across Grant's road. Among other orders he sent one to his artillery chiefs. All guns on the left and centre that might be "difficult of access" were to be withdrawn at nightfall. So, later, they would be ready to come swiftly and noiselessly into column. Having received the order, Ewell's chief of artillery removed all guns from the high and broken ground at the point of the V. Toward midnight Lee received assurance that the blue movement across the Po had been but a reconnoissance. Mahone and Wilcox, whom he had sent toward Shady Grove, were recalled, and the Army of Northern Virginia prepared to meet on this ground the Army of the Potomac. Certain orders were countermanded, certain others given. But through some negligence or other the order to restore to their original position the guns "difficult of access" did not that night reach the proper officers. When the first pallid light came into the sky the guns were away from the salient, the point of the V. And a thousand yards in the forest lay, on their arms, waiting for the dawn, the Second and Ninth Army Corps.
The salient for hundreds of yards it thrust itself out toward the blue, like a finger pointing from a clenched hand. And the finger nail was the Bloody Angle.
Billy Maydew, rising from the wet earth at four o'clock, found that the rain was coming down and the world was wrapped in fog. "Thunder Run Mountain can't see Peaks of Otter this morning!" he said. He stood up, tall and lean and twenty-one, and stretched himself. "Hope grandpap and the dawgs air setting comfortable by the fire!"
Certainly the Stonewall Brigade, Johnson's division, Ewell's corps, was not warm and comfortable. Felled wet trees did as well for breastwork and traverse and abatis as dry, but they were not so good for camp-fires. The fires this streaming break-of-day were a farce. The ground behind the breastworks was rough and now very muddy, and the great number of stumps of trees had a dismal look. Where a fire was kindled the smoke refused to rise, but clung dark, thick, and suffocating. The air struck shiveringly cold, and the woods north and east and west of the sharp salient were as invisible as a fog-mantled coast. Billy, standing high in the angle's narrowest part, had a curious feeling. He had never been on a ship or he might have thought, "I am driving fast into something behind that fog." As it was, he shook off the slight dizziness and looked about him — at the thronged deck where everybody was trying to get breakfast, at the long trenches, each side of the salient and rounding the point, at the log and earth breastworks and the short traverses, at the abatis of felled trees, branches outward, much like the swirl of waves to either side the ship's prow. He looked at the parapets where the guns had been, and then, brigade headquarters' fire being near, he listened to an aide from the division commander. "General Johnson says, sir, that he has sent again for the guns, sent for the third time. They're coming, but the road is frightfully heavy. He says the moment they are here, get them into position and trained. In the mean time keep the sharpest kind of lookout."
Billy had not thought much of it before, but now it came over him. "We air in a darned defenceless position out here."
He went back to where his mess was struggling with a fire not big enough to toast hard-tack. He had hardly joined them when a drum beat and an order rang the length and breadth of the salient. Fall in !
He was down in one of the trenches, the Sixty-fifth with him, right and left. Turning his head, he saw Cleave stand a moment looking at the platforms where the batteries had been and now were not, then walk along the trenches and speak to the men. Lieutenant Coffin he saw, too, slight, pale, romantic-looking, and troubled at the moment because he had unwittingly stepped into a mud-hole which had mired him above the knee. He had a bit of scrap iron and with it was scraping the mud away, steadying him-self, shoulder against a tree.
Billy smiled. "Ain't he a funny mixture? Hates a speck of mud 'most as much as he hates a greyback! Funny when I think of how I used to hate him !" He looked along the line and at the companies in reserve and at the clusters of officers, with here or there a solitary figure, and at the regiments of the Stonewall Brigade, and the other brigades of Johnson's division, and then out through a crack between two logs, to the picket line beyond the abatis and to the misty wood. "I don't know that I hate anybody now," said Billy aloud.
" Don't you? " asked the man next him. "I wouldn't be a namby-pamby like that! I could n't get along without hating, any more than I could without tansy in the spring-time!"
"Oh, thar air times," said Billy equably, "when I think I hate the Yanks."
"Think! Don't you know?"
Billy was counting the cartridges in his cartridge-box. "Why," he said when he had finished, "sometimes of course I hate them like p'ison oak. But then thar air other times when I consider that — according to their newspapers — they hate me like p'ison oak, too. Now I do a power of wrong things, I know, but I air not p'ison oak.
And so, according to what Allan calls `logic,' maybe they air not p'ison oak either. Thar was a man in the Wilderness. The fire in the scrub was coming enough to feel the devil in it closer and closer. And his spine was hurt and he could n't move, and he had his shoulder against a log, one end of which was blazing. He was sitting there all lit up by that light, and he had his musket butt up and was trying to beat out his brains. Me and Jim Watts got him out, and he was from Boston and a young man like me, and I liked him just as well as ever I liked any man. He put his arms around my neck and he hugged me and cried, and I hugged him, too, and I reckon I cried, too. And Jim and me got him out through the scrub afire. He wa'n't no p'ison oak, no more'n I were."
"Well, what 're you fighting for?"
"I am fighting," said Billy, "for the right to secede."
Out in the fog a picket fired. Another and another followed. There arose a sputter of musketry, then a sound of voices and of running feet, heavy on the sodden earth. In a moment there was commotion, up and down, within the salient. In fell the pickets — anyhow - over the breastworks. "They're coming! they're coming! All of them! It looked like —!"
They came, Barlow's division in two lines of two brigades each "closed in mass," Birney's division, Mott's division, Gibbon behind. Barlow came over an open space, Birney through a wood of stunted pines and by a marsh. Together they wrapped with fire the extended finger that was the salient. There rose a grey shouting, "The guns! the guns! Hasten the guns!" The guns were coming — Page's and Cutshaw's — the guns were hastening, coming in two lines, twenty-two guns, through the tangled, sopping wood — horses and drivers and cannoneers straining every nerve. The ground was frightful beneath foot and wheel. Two guns got up in time to fire three rounds into the looming blue. Then the storm broke, and the angle became the spot on earth where, it is estimated, in all the history of the earth the musketry fire was the heaviest. It became the "Bloody Angle."
Billy fired, bit a cartridge, loaded, fired, loaded, fired, loaded, fired, and all over and over again, then, later, used his bayonet, then clubbed his musket and struck with it, lifted, struck, lifted, struck. Each distinct action carried with it a more or less distinct thought. "This is going to be hell here, presently," thought the first cartridge. "No guns and every other Yank in creation coming jumping!" "Thunder Run!" thought the second; "Thunder Run, Thunder Run, Thunder Run !" Thought the third, "I killed that man with the twisted face." Thought the fourth, "I forgot to give Dave back his tin cup." The fifth cartridge had an irrelevant vision of the school-house and the water-bucket on the bench by the door. The sixth thought, "That man won't go home either!" Down the line went the word, Bayonets ! and he fixed his bayonet, the gun-bore burning his fingers as he did so. The breastwork here was log and earth. Now other bayonets appeared over it, and behind the bayonets blue caps. "I have heard many a fuss," said the first bayonet thrust, "but never a fuss like this!" "Blood, blood!" said the second. "I am the bloody Past! Just as strong and young as ever I was! More blood!"
The trenches grew slippery with blood. It mixed with the rain and ran in red streamlets. The bayonet point felt first the folds of cloth, then it touched and broke the skin, then it parted the tissues, then it grated against bone, or, passing on, rending muscle and gristle, protruded, a crimson point. Withdrawn, it sought another body, sought it fast, and found it. Those men who had room to fire kept on firing, the blue into breast and face of the grey, the grey into breast and face of the blue. Flame scorched the flesh of each. Pistols were used as well as muskets. Where there was not room to fire, or time to load, where one could not well thrust with the bayonet, the stock of gun or pistol was used as a club. Where weapons had been wrested away men clutched with bare hands one anothers' throats. And all this went on, not among a dozen or even fifty infuriated beings, but among thousands. Over all was the smoke, through which, as through a leaky roof, poured the rain.
The blue came over the breastwork, down the slippery side, into the trenches. Their feet pressed dead bodies or slipped in the bloody mire. The grey seemed to lift them bodily and throw them back upon the other side. Then across the parapet broke out again the storm of musketry. There were four thousand defending the salient, there were thrice as many pressing to the attack. From the rear Ewell was throwing forward brigades, but they could not come in time. The twenty-two guns were now here, but only two were unlimbered, when the blue finally overran the Bloody Angle.
They poured into the salient, they took three thousand grey prisoners, amongst them Johnson himself and General Steuart; they took twenty of Page and Cutshaw's twenty-two guns. They swept on, hurrahing, to the second line across the salient, and here they met the troops of Hill and Early. Gordon and Rodes, brigades of Lane and Ramseur and Perrin, brigades of Mississippi and South Carolina, artillery from any quarter that could be brought to bear, all crashed against the rushing blue. All day it lasted, the battle of the broken centre, with movements of diversion elsewhere; an attack, violently repulsed, upon Anderson of Longstreet's; and Early's victory over Burnside. But it was over and around the salient that man's rage waxed hottest. So dense in the rain-laden air was the smoke, both from the artillery and the enormous volume of musketry, that although they were neighbours, indeed, neither side now clearly saw its target. Each side fired at edges and gleams of humanity. Now a work was captured and held, perhaps for five, perhaps for twenty minutes. Then it was retaken. Now it was the Stars and Stripes that waved above it, and now it was the Stars and Bars. The abatis became a trap to take the living and hold the dead. It and all the standing trees were riddled by bullets, split into broom-straw. Trees of considerable diameter, bit in twain by the leaden teeth, crashed down upon the commands beneath. The artillery, roaring into the battle from every feasible point, raked the ground with canister, bringing down the living and dreadfully mangling the already fallen. The face of the earth was kneaded into a paste with blood and water. The blood seemed to have gotten upon the flags. And always from the rear was handed on the ammunition. ... The Sixty-fifth was among the uncaptured. Billy had become an automaton.
Night closed the conflict. The blue had gained the capture of three fourths of a division, but little since or beside. When total darkness came down there lay upon the field of Spottsylvania six-teen thousand Federal dead and wounded. The grey loss was not so great, but it was great enough. And never now with the grey could any loss be afforded. With the grey the blood that was lost was arterial blood.
At dawn Lee still held the great V, save only the extreme point, the narrow Bloody Angle. This was covered and possessed by the blue, and at the dawn details came to gather the wounded and bury the dead. The dead lay thronged. The blue buried their own, and then they came and looked upon the trenches on the grey side of the breastworks, and the grey dead lay there so thick that it was ghastly. They lay in blood stiffened with earth, and their pale faces looked upwards, and their cold hands still clutched their muskets. A ray from the rising sun struck upon them. "With much labour," says a Federal eye-witness, "a detail of Union soldiers buried these dead by simply turning the captured breastworks upon them."
Back somewhere near the river Po, in the width of the V, a mounted officer met a mounted comrade. The latter was shining wet, he and his horse, from a swollen ford. Each drew rein.
"Have you anything to eat?" said the one from across the Po. "I am dizzy, I am so famished."
"I've got a little brown sugar. Here —"
He poured it into the hollow of the other's hand, who ate it eagerly. "Has anything," asked the first, "been heard from Richmond way — from Stuart ?"
The other let fall his hand, sticky with the sugar. He looked at his fellow with sombre eyes. "Where have you been," he said, "not to have heard ? — Stuart is dead."